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Sola Scriptura Is Not So Easy to Kill

It's not as easy as saying, "Sola scriptura isn't in the Bible!" Protestants have an answer to that, and Catholics have to be able to meet that answer.

When it comes to the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (Latin, “scripture alone”), Catholics have some popular rejoinders. One of the most popular is captured in the phrase, “Where’s that in the Bible?”

The idea here is this: for a Protestant, Scripture alone serves as the infallible source for Christian belief (the doctrine of sola scriptura). Anything not found within the confines of the written word should not be accepted as Christian doctrine. But this principle is self-defeating: since the belief of sola scriptura itself is not found within the confines of the written word, a Protestant must not accept it as a Christian doctrine. To do so would be to violate the principle of sola scriptura.

So the self-defeating nature of the argument makes it a slam dunk, right? Not quite.

A Protestant could counter and say, “Wait a minute! The Bible doesn’t have to explicitly say, ‘The Bible alone is our infallible source for Christian, and we shouldn’t accept as Christian doctrine things that aren’t in the Bible.’ It can be inferred from what’s present in the text.”

Take, for example, St. Paul’s instruction for us to hold fast to the traditions handed down by both word and written epistle (2 Thess. 2:15). Protestant apologists Geisler and MacKenzie concede that the apostolic traditions spoken of by Paul were binding for the first-century Christians because the apostles were the only ones who had apostolic authority. But since they’re all dead, so they argue, the only apostolic authority we have is the inspired record of their teaching. From this, Geisler and MacKenzie infer that the oral tradition-Scripture paradigm changed when the last apostle died, thereby leaving only the inspired apostolic writings (i.e., Scripture) for us to use as our infallible guide for Christian belief and practice.

Furthermore, some might say the Catholic idea that these traditions are always binding is an inference that’s not supported by the text. There’s nothing in the text itself, it might be argued, that says Christians were always to depend on those oral traditions. Without such evidence, it would seem more reasonable to think we’re left with only the inspired apostolic writings to be our infallible guide.

How might we meet this Protestant rejoinders?

Let’s take the first target given to us by Geisler and MacKenzie. As I point out in my book Meeting the Protestant Response, it’s problematic on two fronts.

First, it’s unclear what the implication is. Does the claim that there is no more apostolic authority imply that no more revelation can be given, whether in oral or written form? If that’s the case, then we agree as Catholics. Sacred Tradition for Catholics does not entail the belief that public revelation was given after the time of the apostles. The Catholic Church teaches, along with Protestants, that public revelation ceased with the death of the last apostle.

Now, if the implication is that there is no more apostolic authority to preserve what the apostles taught, then we have a problem, since the Bible and extra-biblical Christian sources make it clear that one way the Holy Spirit preserved the apostolic traditions was by leading the apostles to appoint men to succeed them in their apostolic ministry, and they charged such men to preserve what the apostles had taught. For example, before his death, Paul made arrangements for the Apostolic Tradition to be passed on in the post-Apostolic Age. He tells Timothy: “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

We also have evidence from extra-biblical Christian sources that the apostles appointed men to succeed them for the sake of preserving what they taught. Clement of Rome’s first-century letter to the Corinthians (c. A.D. 70) is one example. He writes in chapter 44,

Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect foreknowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned [bishops—at chapter 42], and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry.

Irenaeus of Lyons, a bishop of the late second century, affirms that the apostolic traditions were preserved in this line of succession from the apostles. Here’s what he writes in his classic work Against Heresies:

It is within the power of all, therefore, in every church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about (III:3:1).

For Irenaeus, the truth of Apostolic Tradition is preserved in the succession of bishops from the apostles. This is what we find in Scripture.

For these reasons, we can reject Geisler’s and MacKenzie’s justification for the claim that the oral tradition-Scripture paradigm shifted once the apostles died off. The apostolic authority didn’t die with the apostles. It continued in the men they chose to succeed them, called bishops.

What about the second target given above: that there’s nothing in Paul’s affirmation of first-century Christians depending on oral traditions to say they would always be dependent on it?

The problem here is that the logic would equally apply to the written traditions, since Paul speaks of the oral and written traditions together as that which the Thessalonians need to maintain and stand firm in. If a Protestant thinks the lack of an explicit exhortation to always stand firm in the oral traditions favors the oral tradition-Scripture paradigm shift, then he must be willing to say Christians don’t always have to depend on the written traditions (Scripture), since Paul says nothing in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 about Christians always depending on them. Perpetual dependence on the written traditions has to be inferred. And if we can do that, then we can reasonably make the same kind of inference for the oral traditions.

There’s one last thing to say in response to the overall Protestant rejoinder: if some sola scriptura Protestants are open to doctrines being validly implied but not explicitly stated in Scripture, then they’ve got to be at least open to accepting all kinds of Catholic doctrines (e.g., Mary’s bodily assumption, Mary’s immaculate conception). Or at least, when they challenge doctrines like the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception, they have to jettison arguments whose foundation is anything like “it’s not in the Bible.”

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